Five Houses Down

Remember to close your curtains after dark. If I’m passing by an open window, I’m going to slow down and see what I can see. Though I’ve been rewarded enough through the years to continue indulging my guilty pleasure, it matters not what someone might be doing. It’s just that I’m curious about what’s going on whether driving by a lonely house on a dark country road or gazing at all the neighboring windows from a high-rise hotel room.

Is someone on the phone? What are they talking about? Are those people having a party? Why are all the lights on in that house on the hill with only one car parked in front? The house over there is completely dark at 8:00 every night. What do the occupants do each day that requires them to get up so early? Every residence triggers a long list of questions and provides hours of speculation.


The immaculate house a few doors down. Lacking curb appeal, I’m left to wonder what the owners do all day.

The fifth house east of my childhood home has fascinated me for decades. My mother once remarked that the little white house standing back from the road was so well kept; yet she never saw anyone outside. Keep in mind that we couldn’t see the house from half a mile away unless whizzing by it in our rush to reach the highway, but one would think in 40 years that we’d see someone in the front yard at some point.

Except for meticulously trimmed boxwoods to camouflage the front steps, there are only four other small plants along the front, which do nothing to mask the raised foundation. There are no grand flowerbeds, no colorful borders, nothing to be mowed around or anything to please the eye. The owners are clearly not trying to attract attention or provide visual interest.

In a real estate listing, the smallish dwelling might be described as “cozy” or “quaint” or “meticulous,” but this well-maintained abode raises so many questions in my mind. In an area outside of television cable service, there’s not a satellite dish attached to the slightly pitched roof, and speaking of roofs, I’ve never known this house to need a new one. The white shingles are always in good shape. The lawn is never out of control, but in more than four decades, I’ve never seen anyone mowing it. There are no trees on the front of the lot, and those four plants along the front would take no more than ten minutes to prune, and that would include getting out the tools and putting them away.

There is no barn or garden shed, and the carport, which was added later, no longer has a car in the drive, nor is there anything else stored in it. My last trip to the neighborhood had me slowing down. There was a vehicle in the drive as I passed on the way to see my parents, but there were no cars on the place during the rest of my stay.

I believe someone lives there, and they have the means to keep the place up, but my casual research indicates these people do not enjoy gardening, being outside, watching TV, or getting involved with the neighbors. The backyard is unfenced, there are no pets running toward the road, the house faces north, and some of the windows are high, which indicates limited natural light.

It’s true that I haven’t been around much in decades, but when I was younger, I went by that house at least twice a day. There were never additional cars on holidays, no kids playing in the yard, and there were certainly no eye-popping light displays. These people didn’t even light a candle in the front window.

In my imagination, these two people—perhaps now only one—have been sitting in the dark for almost 50 years discussing anything but gardening, animals, food, exotic travel, and whatever is coming on television tonight.

When I was six, my sister took me trick-or-treating after a battle over my last-minute costume. I liked the idea of dressing up and going out, but I was never keen on asking people to give me candy, which has resulted in my becoming one of those adults who doesn’t like asking for help.

We’d just moved in a couple of months earlier, and perhaps we saw a porch light and mistook its meaning. Dad drove us, and Karen walked me to the door. That Halloween night was the one and only time I’ve ever gotten close to the house though I have passed it thousands of times. The lady of the house dropped pennies into my bag while her husband complimented my costume.

The lack of candy on hand indicated they weren’t expecting trick-or-treaters. I was surely the only kid they’d had that year or perhaps ever. I can recall the husband facing me, standing on his wife’s right, and I think she had blond hair. It could’ve been gray. I have always remembered them being “really old,” but I was six and anyone over 35 could have admitted to being 40 or 70 and I would have believed them. Considering how much time has passed, they couldn’t have been too old that night if either of them are still living in the house and keeping it up.

I was more focused on the coins the lady dropped into my bag. I was ready to reconsider my stance on begging if every knock on the door resulted in cold, hard cash. Because I was blinded by filthy lucre, I missed a wonderful opportunity to steal a glance inside a house that has haunted my imagination for decades. I can’t very well go to the door now and introduce myself as that six year-old kid who came trick-or-treating one time over 40 years ago. The sight of my gray hair would shock them into realizing how long they have been sitting in there night after night as the years became decades and faded into the past. I’ve lost my window of opportunity to know what they’ve been doing in there all this time.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at

Natural Decadence

The lingering moisture after the wettest winter since the late 1940s has kept me inside more days than out. The view from my window has been a slow-motion performance as the brittleness of winter gradually transformed into the various verdant shades of spring. My brain is always a season ahead, which means I’m thinking what needs to be done before the leaves fall and we’re left with skeletons for six months. At that point, I’ll ponder the spring, knowing now that I’ll not stop long enough to really appreciate it when it finally comes.

After the fog lifts, the misty mornings leave us with cool days right now. Forecasters insist that it will be unbearably hot in July and August, but we’ve had only a glimmer of heat in the past ten months. Establishing vegetables has been a challenge this year, but the natural foliage has been stunningly beautiful during our second full spring. There are ferns everywhere, the natives that people pay good money for in nurseries grow in abundance, and of course blackberry plagues my life, having become my greatest nemesis.

The cool wetness brings two things to the surface: slugs and mushrooms. My friend Ronald explained the most successful remedy for the slimy things is beer. These pests are not elitists or hipsters. They like cheap beer, which I place in shallow containers in the herb garden, the asparagus bed, and among the irises like portable pubs in these slug slums.

In the beginning, tiny slugs flock to the beer like fraternity members to a keg party. I come out in the mornings to find the containers filled with dead and bloated revelers. A few weeks later, I realize the beer is lasting longer and the remaining slugs are considerably larger. In a few cases, I’ve discovered sizeable creatures clinging to the outside of my traps, stretching down and audaciously enjoying sips of beer to satisfy their thirsts without ingesting enough to bloat them. Apparently slugs can learn.

According to the mushroom field guide, the most prevalent variety we have is the hallucinogenic, but I’m not willing to risk death to find out for certain. The caps and gills match up but they look very similar to something poisonous. They’re thriving in the manure used to fertilize the asparagus, and the field guide indicates these mushrooms are safe to eat. The same ones are also found along the shaded trails kept green by decomposition.

The rabbits live in those areas, and several times a day they make their way into the open just before dark and again before sunrise to feed and feed and feed. According to another field guide, these rabbits were brought to North America over a hundred years ago and made their way down from Canada. I would’ve been for a wall built to keep them out, but they crossed the border freely to do what rabbits do. We have an average of seven, but that number fluctuates in the warm months. We have hawks and owls in the forest row on the north and the west, which seem to control them unless some of these babies are growing up quickly and going off to Bunny College.

As the slugs grow in length and wisdom, the beer lasts longer. There have been mornings when I’ve tossed it out in order to put out fresh, thinking that the slugs have not only become wiser, they’ve become snobbish. This situation has clearly become a case of me working for them as I gather containers, rinse them out with the hose and replace them carefully before filling them with nice clean beer. Some of the traps are still drawing a crowd, but summer’s approach means fewer and fewer gastropods floating in the hops.

I noticed last week on the three warm days that there wasn’t a slug to be found, but the beer was completely gone in most cases. Even when the slugs taste it or die drinking it, there is always liquid remaining, but these containers were completely dry! I also noticed on the trails that the mushrooms had disappeared within a day. That many mushrooms wouldn’t disappear at once unless someone was gathering them to cook—or get high.


The bunny in its altered state mellows out beneath the birdbath.

I’ve decided it’s the rabbits. No wonder the raptors are getting them. Their reflexes are slow and they’re on some wild psychedelic trip that hasn’t been experienced in 50 years. There’s a mellow bunny that nestles itself in the fern that surrounds the birdbath, which is in my line of sight as I type. Rabbits have high metabolisms, which require them to keep eating, but this creature digs in and sits there for long periods of time without moving. I wonder what he sees. He’s not been alive long enough to realize he’s in an altered state so whatever strangeness he encounters seems normal.

In spite of his pillaging, I almost don’t begrudge his presence. He deserves a few blissful days before the hawk swoops down and takes him flying. I can only imagine what he’ll think of when becoming airborne under the influence. “Man, what kind of crazy trip is this?!?” I hope he’s still anesthetized by the time they land.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at


My Burning Desire

Starting a fire on a wet morning after a night of torrential rain seems like the most foolish task, but when I set my mind to something, “struggle” doesn’t begin to describe the effort to dissuade me. Give me three dry logs, a splash of kerosene and a bundle of dried twigs. With one match on a still day and two when there’s a breeze, I can create a fire hot enough to burn freshly cut logs and smolder for two days while the next storm pours rain on it.

The trick is to remember the three dry logs, which I recently forgot. Gary brought them down to me then pronounced the conditions too wet to burn. As I wrote above, nothing can deter me when I’m set on doing something. Yes, the fire was slow to build because it was extremely wet, but I believed that with the right amount of nurturing and futzing, this fire would burn all the twigs, blackberry vines (and roots) and branches I’d stacked up during the last few weeks of summer. The area in question was part of my first-year clearing and cleaning goal of the east yard, and when the forecast indicated a day without rain, I wasn’t the least bit concerned with the previous night’s precipitation.

“This isn’t going to light. It’s pointless to be out here,” Gary said.

“Wait. Just wait,” I insisted. He didn’t. I thought he was going in the house, but a minute later he was in the car winding down the driveway to get more kerosene. I can always use more, but then something wonderful happened. The heat started building, and then I heard that high-pitched whistling combined with the crackling and splatter of wet wood drying out and steam being released. It was time to start raking the pile and grabbing from a nearby stack to get a bigger fire.

When he returned, Gary was pleased to see the fire doing its job. We were still stoking the fire six hours later, and it was so hot that we couldn’t get closer than the length of a rake handle without scorching our faces. I had a lot to burn. I had cleared a sizable patch, certainly more than our previous front and back yards combined, so burning this would take days.

Or so I thought. I had planned on four days, but the embers were glowing when I approached the area the next morning. I scattered the coals with a rake and dumped some small brush on top. Minutes later, I had flames large enough to justify my adding bigger pieces of wood. Getting the fire hot enough took no time the second day, and I was able to finish all of my piles regardless how soaked they were. The rains resumed that evening, which forced me to stop, but when I looked out from time to time, I could see a moisture-defying flame in the darkness. When the sun came up, the rains were still coming down while the circle of white continued to emit a stream of smoke throughout the day.

Linus perseveres regardless of the obstacles he faces. (Pumpkin carver unknown.)

Linus perseveres regardless of the obstacles he faces. (Pumpkin carver unknown.)

There has to be a lesson in all of this, and I think I understand. Most of what I get done is through persistence and a generally positive attitude. That’s not to say I’m always optimistic or Gary’s always the skeptic. He talks me off of plenty of ledges that no one ever hears about. However, that day, as I explained to him, I’m just Linus in the pumpkin patch, and though I may be on the wrong track occasionally, I’m going to persevere until it works out.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at

Elderberry End

When we said goodbye to the house in Los Angeles County, there were two things I knew I’d miss more than anything though they could never entice me to stay. One was a distinctive pink bougainvillea, which I’d planted eight years before. It was a little thing when I dug that hole, but it flourished in direct sunlight and spread across the back wall to soften and conceal the sharp brick edges. The other object was a Eureka lemon tree, which provided an enormous bounty once everyone kept their hands off it and left its care to me.

Jessica Mitford once recounted how she and her first husband never paid their electricity bill in London when they lived there before World War II. She felt electricity should be free. I rather agree, but with a well and fruit trees have added water, lemons, apples and nuts to the list of things we shouldn’t have to pay for.

Elderberries as they appear in late May.

Elderberries as they appear in late May.

It’s been a year since we first laid eyes on Elderberry End, the name selected by the previous owners. Not having an idea what an elderberry shrub looked like, I couldn’t answer the question when people asked me about the name. “Are there lots of elderberries there?” I didn’t know. So many of the areas were overgrown, and our August move-in days were filled with so much to do that I never got a good look around until Labor Day. I could only identify what I knew, and I realized there was much I didn’t know.

If there had ever been any clusters of berries dangling from these trees with their distinctive leaves, the birds had surely been the ones to explore the thickets and take advantage of the bounty.

We started clearing things out during the winter, and though we have years of work in store for clearing out more, I ran across the occasional odd tree. It rises from the ground with several branches, but there were no leaves in winter to know what it was. The bark looked similar to a fruitless mulberry, and the canes were easily cut to form arches in these clearings as I imagined people taking walks and stopping to admire this plant, which had me wondering if it were something tropical and invading this northwestern rain forest.

Ronald from Louisiana visited in May, and he is one of my friends who possess tremendous gardening knowledge, especially when it comes to edibles. He spotted the most prominently placed elderberry, and then I was able to show that they were everywhere. I finally understand why our place name was chosen, and I’m feeling no urgency to think of something new.

The bougainvillea in California, nine years after planting.

The bougainvillea in California, eight years after planting.

Ronald provided some tips on harvesting and using the elderberries if we can get them at the right time before the birds take them. I remembered I have a book by Nigel Slater called Ripe, which I highly recommend. It’s a companion book to his Tender, and both books provide culinary ideas for those who are planning orchards, vegetable gardens or just love reading and looking at photos of beautiful food. Ripe has several ideas for the fruit, including fritters of battered and fried elderberries dipped in sugar. I might consider lifting the frying ban to try them, but there are other ideas I can put to use.

One of the reasons I enjoy Nigel Slater’s books is his frankness (“No one should actually plant one of these trees.”) and his way of describing the simplest things: “The smell of the [elderberry] blossom is, like that of spreading lavender honey on hot toast, the essence of the English summer Miss Marple might have known.” I’m now anticipating these tart berries, and all the things I can do with them.

Leaves on the California Hazelnut (corylus cornuta var. californica)

Leaves on the California Hazelnut (corylus cornuta var. californica)

After Ronald, Bruce was among our next set of visitors, and having grown up in this region of the country, he reminisced about native plants, which he hadn’t seen for a long time. I asked him about a tree I couldn’t figure out, and he thought it might be some sort of nut. The leaves match the ones in my guide to native plants, and it seems we have a couple of hazelnuts, which had gone undiscovered until we removed some problematic trees in the vicinity.

Ripe has a few suggestions for the nuts “If you can manage to get them before the squirrels.” The apple tree, which produced only three mushy apples last year, received some special pampering, and the spring bloom was amazing. I can already see the apples for this tall specimen. Harvesting will require a long pole with a basket, but I’m looking forward to all the ways to enjoy the fruit. Like everything else, we’ll have to harvest before our friends in the forest take everything.

© 2016 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at